How to Balance Your Down Time with Go Time

Photo by Namita Azad
Photo by Namita Azad
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The Challenge: We live in the fast lane, but we end up tired and stressed.
The Science: Research suggests that slowing down gets us results!
The Solution: Here are 5 science-based tactics to wake up by slowing down.

“The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” ―Isaac Asimov

“Wake up by slowing down.” That’s what my students at Penn State Brandywine saw on the board during their first day of class this year. It’s been the theme of our class and it will be the theme for all of my future classes. The lesson first came to me the hard way, when I was a competitive mixed martial artist, a “cage-fighter.” Years later it was reinforced in a much more gentle way—at a “Happy Teachers Change the World” retreat in Thailand with Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. Here are a few science-backed practical applications of this lesson.

5 Tactics to Wake Up By Slowing Down

1) Help Others

Dr. James Rilling and Dr. Gregory Burns of Emory University found that, “Helping others triggered activity in the caudate nucleus and anterior cingulate, portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure.” In other words, doing a good deed for another person lights up the part of our brain associated with being the recipient of an act of kindness. And the wisdom of “reaching hearts” doesn’t end with that interaction. Dr. James Fowler of UC San Diego and Dr. Nicholas Christakis of Harvard found that single acts of kindness often spread across time, creating a “domino effect.” Lastly, studies show that giving your time to others actually makes you feel like you have more time, not less. Slowing down from our own work to give to others is both a gift to ourselves and a pebble that creates ripples of kindness across the pond of humanity.

2) Make Genuine Connections

In our fast-paced world of social media, it’s easier than ever to make quick but relatively meaningless connections. But in his article for UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, Six Habits of Highly Empathic People, empathy researcher Roman Krznaric writes: “Curiosity expands our empathy when we talk to people outside our usual social circle, encountering lives and worldviews very different from our own. Curiosity is good for us too: Happiness guru Martin Seligman identifies it as a key character strength that can enhance life satisfaction. And it is a useful cure for the chronic loneliness afflicting around one in three Americans.”

How: Take an inventory of your typical day. How much television do you watch? Could your schedule be rearranged, even for just one day each month, so that you can join that once-a-month book club you’ve been meaning to check out? Is there a university in your town? Many of the events on campus (including dynamic speakers) are open to the public. Can you commit to slowing down in order to attend one event per month? This can be a great way to make authentic connections with people who are curious and passionate about similar topics.

3) Practice Mindfulness

Mindfulness-based practices are being used at Google, Facebook, Twitter, The World Bank, the United Nations, renowned institutions of higher education, and by the US Marines and elite Olympic athletes. This is, in large part, because the science continues to suggest its myriad benefits. A June 2014 study in Psychoneuroendocrinology, for example, found that brief mindfulness meditation training “fosters greater active coping efforts, resulting in reduced psychological stress appraisals.” Not sure what mindfulness meditation is? Here’s how Tom Ireland of Scientific American opened his article titled What Does Mindfulness Meditation Do To Your Brain?:

“As you read this, wiggle your toes. Feel the way they push against your shoes, and the weight of your feet on the floor. Really think about what your feet feel like right now – their heaviness. If you’ve never heard of mindfulness meditation, congratulations, you’ve just done a few moments of it.”

Recommended App: Insight Timer. Give yourself a few minutes to slow down the swirl of life. Wherever you are: (1) Find a comfortable position, (2) Choose a guided meditation of a timeframe that fits your schedule, (3) Listen.

4) Read Poetry

A paper titled The Myth of Cognitive Decline, published in Topics in Cognitive Science, made clear that although older people know more words and generally have more information in their brains, it’s their ability to have “greater sensitivity to fine-grained differences” that account for the adage “older and wiser.”

“Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity,” sociology professor Monika Ardelt told the New York Times. Such sensitivity can likely develop at any age of adulthood, especially when mindfulness-based practices are implemented.”

No other form of literature lends itself to exploring things “fine-grained” quite like poetry. Though there are fewer words, the purposeful use of space on the page is made for slowing down, for sipping.

Recommended Reads: Mary Oliver’s A Thousand Mornings and The Essential Rumi.

5) Use Mantras

When you’re in bed but can’t sleep, on your inhale think “I am going to sleep” and on your exhale think “I deserve to sleep.” Or, if you’re feeling uncomfortable in a new place, inhale with “I am here” and exhale with “I am home.” The swirl of our lives and being caught in the “Go” cycle can make it difficult to slow down so that we can observe our stress and restless minds. It’s only after this observation that we can then pivot toward more beneficial, practical or compassionate thoughts.

Science has shown that intensive visualization of specific exercises can increase performance on those exercises. Coupled with this, Gabriel Axel, teacher, neuroscience and cognition specialist, said the following regarding the power of mantras, “…it has been evidenced that even imagining performing musical exercises rewires and strengthens nerve connections… these studies speak to the capacity of mental recitation of mantra to activate and affect the physical nervous system.”

Though the science wasn’t yet there to back him up, all signs are now pointing to the deep truths in Bruce Lee’s famous words: “As you think, so shall you become.”

But we can only access these truths if we consciously couple slow with our go.

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Cameron Conaway
Cameron Conaway is the author of 5 books, including Malaria, Poems, one of five poetry collections to make NPR's Best Books of 2014. He teaches at Penn State Brandywine. Follow him on Twitter @CameronConaway.
Cameron Conaway

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